On Thursday 22 August, a group of 40 men and women delegates from 6 different housing estates on the Black River Coast gathered to get a reply from the Parliamentary Private Secretary, Joe Lesjongard, who is in charge of Constituency Number 14 for the executive, on the issue of what the Government’s plan actually is to deal with the asbestos housing they are living in. It turns out the Government has no plan. It had announced a plan in writing on Government letterhead in 2015 – with great pomp – only to pretend it never did so. Now the Government relies on bluster by the Housing and Environment Ministers.
For a start, the PPS Joe Lesjongard did not turn up to receive the delegations from the six villages. Thursday is his day for receiving people in the Constituency at the Citizens Advice Bureau. A LALIT member organizing the delegation had informed those at the CAB that a delegation would be present on 22 August. It takes about two hours for those far away to arrive at Black River, which was the compromise meeting place, between Site Riambel and Site La Ferme. Delegates came from housing estates in Surinam, Bel Ombre, Le Morne, Black River itself, Tamarin and Bambous.
The demand of those present is simple “Bizin ranplas Lakaz Lamyant”, or the Government is responsible for replacing asbestos housing. Simple. And since 2017 over the months and now years, LALIT has been once again organizing people to get their dangerous housing replaced – as a matter of national urgency. We say “once again” because we still have the archives of letters sent by individual asbestos house dwellers from Bel Ombre and Surinam from 2003, when LALIT organized with villagers in Joint Committees as we have again done over the past two years.
Two big street demonstrations later (one in July last year and one in October), and hundreds of meetings later, and after individual petition letters, articles in the press and on radio, the Government just blunders on, pretending it’s got a plan when it does not. All it offers is what the Government already offers everyone and which, in any case, leaves out large sections of the working class. But Government offers nothing in the way of public health measures to save people from the known dangers of continuing to live in the ageing asbestos housing, as it turns inexorably to dust, causing minute particles to cause severe lung illnesses. All the Government has done so far is to ban the Addison Report on Asbestos. It was made public by a Cabinet decision years ago, and it was physically made public, but any attempts to get a copy of the Report today are thwarted first by civil servants (neither civil to the public nor servants of the public) and now by the Cabinet. The Ombudsman – a pliant officer – has finally allowed the civil servants, who refused to make this document available, to get away with this censorship – censorship they continued imposing even in the face of causing people to continue to be exposed to danger. Now, the Report – according to the Ombudsman, and given how supposedly complex the issue is – it is the Cabinet that will have to decide once again whether to make the decades- old document available. The need for a Freedom of Information Act is cries out.
The Government offers people the following, in its new reduced “non-plan”:
- It will dismantle and do the manutention of the old asbestos sheets, and get rid of them. Big deal.
- If people earn less than the social register amount – in other words qualify for the 21st Century “Poor Law”, they will get their house replaced. In any case, everyone who has a bit of land available qualifies for this, asbestos housing or not.
- If families build up to the level of the beams, the Government will pay for the slab on top. In any case, everyone else qualifies for this.
- People can apply for construction materials to start their house and up to the level of the beams, instead of slab money. This also everyone can apply for. It is not a plan for Asbestos dwellers, as the Government well knows.
- People can go to the NHDC like everyone else and get a loan for a house.
Anyway, this is the pathetic proposal that the poor civil servant, Mrs. Udinn had to offer the forty delegates at the Black River CAB office, given that the PPS Joe Lesjongard had chosen to be absent from his Constituency.
So, the State has sold asbestos housing to people in the 1960’s by which time it well knew that it was toxic. Report after report confirmed this: from John Addison to Dr. Sibartie and more recently to the Ombudsperson for Children, all are adamant: the housing must be replaced as a public health issue. And what does Government do? It classifies the Addison Report.
And Housing Minister Soodhun’s claim in 2015 that he was launching a “plan d’envergure” for which Finance Minister Lutchmeenaraidoo had released funds, has been replaced by the pittance in the last budget of Rs10,000 per asbestos house.
The Government has come forward with no plan.
Asbestos housing dwellers from 57 Housing Estates have held two big street marches and written individual letters to the Prime Minister, who is also Finance Minister to no avail. The Government has, meanwhile, given the sugar estates in the south a motorway worth Rs600,000,000 and a road to villas and hotels worth some Rs 200,000,000 in the Black River district, itself.
After LALIT’s joint committees with each housing estate kicked up a fuss at the first letters from individual housing dwellers not even being replied to, the only victory we have so far had, is that the Prime Minister’s Office sent an individual acknowledgement of receipt to each family after their letter was handed in at the second street demonstration in October.
Peoples’ demand is so minimal, and so precise. The Government just rides roughshod over it:
Publish a precise timetable of how the State will proceed with replacing the dangerous housing.
So, people gathered at the Black River CAB, and the previous day at the Plaine Magnien CAB as well as at the Pamplemousses CAB, to demand a reply to this demand.
Pravind Jugnauth’s Government is too busy with prestige projects and tail-ending the capitalists’ selling off of all the sugar estate land in the country.
As elections approach, the individual Government MPs and Ministers are having difficulty in beginning their campaigns in these 50 or so areas. Thus a kind of blind panic, and a great deal of blathering. But no victory in sight yet for asbestos house dwellers.